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Wednesday's Audience - On St. Ignatius of Antioch

"Truly a Doctor of Unity"

VATICAN CITY, MARCH 15, 2007 (ZENIT) - Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave at the general audience today on St. Ignatius of Antioch.

* * *

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Like last Wednesday, today we are talking about the protagonists in the young Church. Last week, we spoke about Pope Clement I, third successor to St. Peter. Today, we will talk about St. Ignatius, who was "the third bishop of Antioch in Syria, from the year 70 to 107," the year of his martyrdom.

At that time, Rome, Alexandria and Antioch were the three great cities of the Roman Empire. The Council of Nicaea mentions the three "primacies": that of Rome, and Alexandria and Antioch participate, in a certain sense, in a "primacy."

St. Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch, which is now located in Turkey. Here, in Antioch, as we know from the Acts of the Apostles, a blossoming Christian community was emerging: Its first bishop was the apostle Peter as is stated in tradition, and "there for the first time the disciples were called Christians" (Act 11:26).

Eusebius of Caesarea, a fourth-century historian, dedicates an entire chapter of his Storia Ecclesiastica to the life and works of Ignatius (3,36).

"From Syria," he writes, "Ignatius was sent to Rome to be thrown to the animals, because of his testimony to Christ. Traveling through Asia, under the severe care of the guards" (which he calls "ten leopards" in his Letter to the Romans, 5:1), "in each city where he stopped, with preaching and admonitions, he reinforced the Churches; above all, he would exhort heatedly to watch out for heresy, which were beginning to come about and recommended not straying from the apostolic tradition."

The first stop on Ignatius' trip toward martyrdom was the city of Smyrna, whose bishop was St. Polycarp, a disciple of St. John. Here, Ignatius wrote four letters, respectively to the Church of Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles and Rome.

Eusebius continues: "Having left Smyrna, Ignatius came to Troas, and from there sent new letters": two to the Churches of Philadelphia and Smyrna, and one to Bishop Polycarp.

Eusebius completes the list of letters, which have come to us from the first-century Church like a precious treasure. Reading these texts, one can feel the freshness of the faith of the generation that had still known the apostles. We can also feel in these letters the ardent love of a saint. Finally from Troas, the martyr reached Rome, where, in the Flavian Amphitheater, he was thrown to the lions.

No other Church Father expressed as intensely as Ignatius the wish for union with Christ and life in him. This is why we have read the Gospel of the vine, which according to the Gospel of St. John is Jesus.

Two spiritual currents can be found in St. Ignatius: St. Paul's tending toward union with Christ and St. John's concentrating on life in him. In turn, these two currents merge into "imitation of Christ" many times proclaimed by Ignatius as my or our God.

Therefore Ignatius begs the Roman Christians to not postpone his martyrdom, because he was "impatient to join Jesus Christ." And explains: "It is beautiful for me to die going toward ('eis') Jesus Christ, rather than reigning to the ends of the earth. I look for him, who died for me, I want him, who was resurrected for us. ... Let me imitate the Passion of my God!" (Romans 5-6).

In these expressions of burning love we can see the specific Christological realism typical of the Church of Antioch, evermore attentive to the incarnation of the Son of God and his true and concrete humanity. Ignatius writes to the Smyrnaeans, "He is truly of the line of David ... truly born of a virgin ... truly was he nailed for us" (1,1).

Ignatius' irresistible tension toward union with Christ founds a real "mystique of unity." He defines himself as "a man who has been given the duty of unity" (Philadelphians 8,1).

For Ignatius, union is "above all a prerogative of God who being three," is one in absolute union. He often repeats that God is union and only in God can this be found in the pure and original state. The union to be reached in this world by Christians is but an imitation, the closest possible to the divine archetype. In this way, Ignatius elaborates a vision of the Church, closely recalling certain expression of the Letter to the Corinthians by Clement of Rome.

For example, he writes to the Christians of Ephesus: "Wherefore it is fitting that you should run in accordance with the will of your bishop, a thing you also do. For your justly renowned presbytery, worthy of God, is fitted as exactly to the bishop as the strings are to the harp. Therefore in your concord and harmonious love, Jesus Christ is sung. And do ye, man by man, become a choir, that being harmonious in love, and taking up the song of God in unison you may with one voice sing" (4,1-2).

And after having advised the Smyrnaeans to not "undertake anything regarding the Church without the bishop" (8,1), he confides to Polycarp: "I offer my life for those obeying the bishop, the presbyters and the deacons. May I, with them, have a part with God. Work together one with the other, fight together, run together, suffer together, sleep and wake together as administrators of God, his assessors and servants. Please him under whom you fight and from whom you receive grace. May none of you be found deserting. May your baptism remain a shield, faith as a helmet, charity as a lance, patience as armor" (6,1-2).

In general, in Ignatius' letters, we can see a sort of constant and fruitful dialectic between the two aspects characteristic of Christian life: on one hand the hierarchical structure of the ecclesial community, and on the other hand, the fundamental union that links all the faithful in Christ. Therefore the roles cannot be opposed. On the contrary, the insistence on communion of the faithful among themselves and with their pastors is continually formulated through eloquent images and analogies: the harp, the chords, the tone, the concert, the symphony. The specific responsibility of the bishops, the presbyters and the deacons in the building of the community is evident. To them above all, the invitation to love and union is valid.

Ignatius writes to the Magnesians, taking up Jesus' prayer during the Last Supper: "Be as one. One supplication, one mind one hope in love. ... Come all to Jesus Christ as the only temple of God, as the one altar; he is one, and proceeding from the one Father, he remained in union with him, and returned to him in union" (7,1-2).

Ignatius was the first one in Christian literature to give the Church the adjective "Catholic," that is, "universal." He states: "Where Jesus Christ is, so is the Catholic Church" (Smyrnaeans 8,2).

It is in the service of union to the Catholic Church that the Christian community of Rome exercises a sort of primacy in love: "In Rome, it presides worthy of God, venerable worthy of being called blessed. ... Presiding over charity, who bears the law of Christ and the name of Father" (Romans, prologue).

As we can see, Ignatius is "truly a doctor of unity": unity of God and unity of Christ (despite the various heresies that had begun to spread and divided humanity and divinity in Christ), unity of the Church, unity of the faithful "in faith and charity, of which there is nothing more excellent" (Smyrnaeans 6,1).

In conclusion, the realism of Ignatius invites the faithful of yesterday and today, invites us all, to a progressive synthesis between configuration to Christ (union with him, life in him) and dedication to his Church (union with the bishop, generous service to the community and the world).

In other words, one must achieve a synthesis between communion of the Church within itself and the mission of proclamation of the Gospel to others, until one dimension speaks through the other, and believers are evermore "in possession of that indivisible spirit that is Jesus Christ himself" (Magnesians 15).

Imploring this "grace of union" of the Lord, and with the conviction of presiding charity throughout the Church (cf. Romans, prologue), I wish you the same desire that ends the Letter by Ignatius to the Trallians: "Love one another with an undivided heart. My spirit is offered in sacrifice for you not only now, but also when you have reached God. ... In Christ may you be found without sin" (13). And we pray that the Lord may help us in achieving this unity and to be found without sin, because love purifies the spirit.


[After the audience, the Pope greeted visitors in various languages. In English he said:]

I welcome all the English speaking visitors present today, including the Cardinals and Bishops of the Vox Clara committee, gathered in Rome to advise the Congregation for Divine Worship on the new English translation of the Roman Missal. I thank them and their assistants for their important work. Upon all of you I invoke God's abundant blessings of joy and peace.

© Copyright 2007 -- Libreria Editrice Vaticana

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